Writing Retreat at Mouse House

About this time, the editor (STILL on vacation in Morocco) is probably approaching the Sahara on camelback and wondering why, oh, why, did she think this trip was a good idea? After all, the temps are over 100 during the day. Perhaps a literary field trip to the frozen north of Indiana will help. And here it is: Deb’s very first post for Readers Unbound, way back in 2014.

On January 2, 2014, full of high expectations for the trip, I drove from Decatur, Georgia, with my daughter and daughter-in-law to their home in Wolflake, Indiana. I had made a solo reservation to spend the month of January writing in the only cottage on a huge nature preserve near where Hannah and Lisa live.

The cottage, situated on Bear Lake in northern Indiana, is surrounded by 1200 acres of forest, lakes, wetlands, meadows, and prairies. I would have days and days oftim uninterrupted writing time—the kind of days Virginia Woolf calls “pure and rounded pearls.” Inspired by her poetry, I was eager to enter into the long deep thinking time that comes with silence and solitude, there to polish the final draft of my 350-page novel for young readers. The first fourteen drafts had been accomplished only by the grace of similar self-imposed writing retreats in places further south. Four times I’d been to a private “fish camp” on the gulf coast of Florida, twice to a friend’s home on Fripp Island, South Carolina, several times to Wilmington Island, Georgia, twice to Lake Junaluska in the Smokies, and more times than I can remember to the B&B on my brother’s Alabama goat farm called Peace in the Valley.

"You have to step wide," she said, too late.

“You have to step wide,” she said, too late.

Being a Southern gal, I knew nothing of the Arctic polar vortex. Nor did Hannah and Lisa, they confessed to me later. Turns out my latest writing retreat coincided with the first time the cyclone winds of said vortex had extended that far south in seventeen years. The blizzard began on the afternoon of our traveling day. We could barely make it up the driveway when we arrived late. I planned to stay overnight with Hannah and Lisa, then move into the cottage in the morning. Wrong. The temperature dipped to -15 degrees. The snowstorm raged all night and all the next day. Everything in the area was closed, including my 5-room cottage in the wilderness. Its mile-long lane was drifted over with waist-high snow. Hannah and Lisa assured me the delay would be short. Unlike Georgia, Indiana has adequate road crews. While we waited out the storm, we took a lovely trek through the snowy woods. Though I was new to snowshoes, I learned right away they’re easy to walk in, unless you make a turn.

For four days, the blizzard blew, temperatures remained well below zero, the snow deepened, and nobody went to work. We built Norbert the snow dragon in Hannah and Lisa’s front yard and went sledding down the school hill. No writing, but no matter, I had a whole month ahead of me. This was time well-spent with family—worthy snowplay, cozy soups, invigorating games, and learning how to dress in -18 degree weather. I’m not kidding. That’s what the thermometer read one morning. Hannah and Lisa took turns shoveling the driveway, four times a day. Not kidding again.

Rieth Cottage on the grounds at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, near Wolf Lake, Indiana

Rieth Cottage on the grounds at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, near Wolf Lake, Indiana

On January 10, we got word that the lane to the cottage had been cleared and I was free to move in if I still wanted to. I did. We bought groceries. Hannah and Lisa delivered me and my things to the cottage. We turned on the heat, and Lisa showed me how to build a fire in the fireplace. Plenty of split wood was stacked outside the front door, albeit under 18 inches of snow. We said our farewells, arranging to have supper together at their house every Sunday during my stay.

As soon as they left, I began exploring the kitchen. That’s when I discovered I wasn’t alone. At least one mouse scuttled into a dark corner of every lower cupboard I opened. Who could blame them in this weather? At home, such an encounter would have sent me screaming, but not here. I would simply not open those cupboards again. I stashed all my groceries in the empty refrigerator, even the non-perishables, and checked out the rest of the house. I unpacked my suitcase, prepared for bed, read for a little while, and turned off the light.

Scritch scratch scritch scratch. Was I imagining sounds in the darkness?  No, they grew louder and nearer. When they came too close for comfort, like beside the bed, I aimed my phone’s flashlight app toward the sounds. Then I did scream. From the floor in the corner, not three feet from my pillow, two shiny beady eyes returned my stare. At my scream and light, the mouse ducked behind the heater. I pulled on my snow boots, found a big stick from the fireplace, and banged it on all the heaters along the baseboards, scaring off my night companion. I lay flat on my back, eyes wide, snow boots on, stick in hand. If it got on the bed, I was ready. It didn’t, but the scratching continued all night, and my eyes wouldn’t close.

In the morning, Hannah and Lisa delivered six humane box-traps and their housecat, Jasper. While I built my first fire, three mice scurried across the brick hearth, and Jasper went to work. He cornered one poor gray fellow, caught him, and took a nap on the couch.

That night Jasper stayed on the prowl and caught another mouse, which he left for me on the hearth rug. I heard two of the traps spring in the night, along with more scratching. Again I slept not. Come daylight I found mouse turds on my white bathrobe and dozens of blue poison pellets in my empty suitcase.

Mousebuster daughter-in-law, Lisa

Mousebuster daughter-in-law, Lisa

Prior to my arrival, the maintenance staff had spread the tasty but deadly pellets, and apparently the mice were hoarding them in my suitcase for a safer day when there would be no cat. I turned a bowl over the dead mouse on the rug and called Lisa to the rescue.

Night three: Jasper prowled at first, then curled up on the bed with me. No more scratches, no more mice. I slept long and deep. Jasper was my new best boyfriend. I kept him for the remainder of my stay and never saw another mouse—except for the nest of four that died in the stove insulation the first time I turned on the oven, making the cottage stink like, well, burning mice. Lisa came again to pull out the stove and remove the charred nest. Hannah brought scented candles.

I shared the mice on Facebook. Friends began naming them from classic literature. The list got long. I swore off social media.

Thirteen days in, I had not started what I came for, but Jasper had successfully evicted the mice, and there were still two weeks left. I began writing on day fourteen and worked late into every night. I woke with the sun, read poetry, practiced yoga, meditated, walked in the woods, made snow angels alone on the frozen lake, built a fire every evening, and finished the final draft.

Snow Angel on Frozen Bear Lake

Snow Angel on Frozen Bear Lake

 

Who are your favorite literary rodents? Despereaux? Reepicheep? Martin the Warrior? Remy? Templeton? 

 

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9 thoughts on “Writing Retreat at Mouse House

  1. “… making the cottage stink like, well, burning mice.” That you remained in the cottage at all beyond this event is a testament to the spirit that drives you to complete a 15th, and final, draft of your novel. Young readers must be made aware of such determination.

  2. Au contraire, Paul—nothing that honorable—more like selfish pride. After seven years of postponing my own deadlines for finishing, I had told so many people this was my last deadline, I had to stick it out just to save face!

  3. This certainly is a testament to inspiration but I believe determination is the correct “tion”.
    What better lead in for inspiration for next book!

  4. Sorry for the late comment, but I’ve been away. Simply LOVED your
    post–there has to be a way to write this up as a short story or essay
    and submit it somewhere. Thank goodness for Jasper–super cat!
    Glad that you finally got some work done and found the peace and
    quiet at long last. Welcome to readersunbound!

    • Thanks, Susan. It has been suggested I turn it into a children’s story told from viewpoint of the mice whose privacy is invaded by a human, but I can’t imagine how I’d handle burning the mouse nest to a crisp!

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